The “philosophy of art” in Anglo-American analytical philosophy has had barely any influence on the main epistemological, ethical, and metaphysical concerns of that philosophy. By setting up a specific domain of questions concerning the ontological status of “art and its objects,” the meaning of “expression,” “do I like it because it is beautiful or is it beautiful because I like it?,” and the like, reflection on whether participation in art might itself be a means of doing philosophy is effectively precluded. For analytical philosophy, art is instead an object to be explained like any other.
In contrast, if one looks at the history of aesthetics in modern philosophy, a central concern is its initiation of new ways of questioning the status of “subjective” and “objective” that are occasioned by fundamental social, economic, and political changes. One manifestation of this questioning is precisely a concern with the potentially damaging effects of an exclusively objectifying stance towards the world, where nature is seen in solely “mechanical” terms, as a system of laws. The dominant philosophical alternative to the emergence of modern aesthetics derives from sceptical questions prompted by Descartes’ attempt to make the subject the ground of philosophy. The ensuing questions have a considerable influence on subsequent philosophy, but, looked at within their historical context, can also seem somewhat puzzling.
At the moment when, not least via figures like Descartes himself, the modern mathematically based sciences begin to produce knowledge claims that generate more and more practically useable results—and plausible explanatory theories—a significant part of modern philosophy consists of repeated, never definitive, attempts to refute epistemological scepticism. This situation is what leads John Dewey to see modern philosophy, in The Quest for Certainty, as involving:
“the complete hold possessed by the belief that the object of knowledge is a reality fixed and complete in itself, in isolation from an act of inquiry which has in it any element of production of change.”
Seeking to ground cognitive relationships to the world in such terms can lead to a neglect of the fact that knowing things is only one of the ways in which we relate to them, and so can distort philosophical interpretations of the world. Further historical changes, which help give rise to the “aesthetic” alternative at issue here, are that the scientific developments are accompanied by the emergence of the modern philosophical concern with art and the beauty of nature; by new conceptions of language that see it as an active part of “human nature,” not as something divinely created; and by the commodification of objects in the new capitalist economy, which changes the very nature of what an object may be. Commodification can be linked to the modern sciences insofar as in both the value of particular things is subordinated to objectifying forms of identification, in the rendering equivalent of objects qua exchange values, and in the form of general scientific laws. The new concern with aesthetics can be construed in part as a reaction to what is neglected by such forms of identification, and this links to a new attention to the manifold ways in which what Cassirer terms “symbolic forms,” which include both language and the arts, constitute the world we inhabit.
If more weight is given to these developments, a different trajectory of modern philosophy emerges. Rather than priority being given to questions of knowledge and the construction of theories in separate epistemological, metaphysical, and ethical domains, in this alternative account the ways in which sense is both made and put at risk when the idea of a “ready-made world” is put in doubt become the main concern. Epistemological scepticism is interpreted in this view as itself a symptom of a wider concern in modernity with “meaning,” as what connects us to a post-theological world and makes things matter. An epistemological response to this is seen here as inherently one-sided because it gives primacy to an observational stance that involves a scepticism-inducing separation of subject and object, whereas our main mode of existence is actually through active participation in the world, in which global sceptical doubts play little, if any, role. Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor refer to “contact theories” in this respect, as opposed to “mediational theories” of the kind that result from the perceived subject-object split.
“The arts can in significant respects be seen themselves to be philosophical.”
The “aesthetic dimensions” become manifest when the world is regarded as a shifting context of meanings, rather than as the totality of knowable objects. This is why the associated changes in conceptions of nature, that occur from the latter half of the eighteenth century onwards, are linked to fundamental changes in how language is conceived. From being that which designates things in a pre-existing world order, it becomes what constitutes a world of meanings. Cassirer suggests that language is now not primarily to be thought of in terms of logic, but rather in terms of aesthetics, because particular languages and forms of language give rise to differing kinds of understanding, expression, and articulation. The world in this sense can now be seen, for example, through ways in which participation in music may alter how we relate to it. This is reflected in the simultaneous change in status of music in the eighteenth century that meant it was no longer just attached to religious ritual or a mere accompaniment to social activities, and—as the rapid development of music from Bach to Schoenberg shows—explores how what previously made no sense can make sense in new musical configurations. At the same time, the world is also what is fundamentally transformed when commodification changes the very sense of what objects are. Attention to ways in which the ensuing objectification and obscuring of the particular value of things can be questioned are crucial to the role of the arts in constituting new perspectives on nature in modernity.
Most importantly, the changes at issue here mean that the arts can in significant respects be seen themselves to be philosophical. If modern philosophy seeks to make sense of the world without relying on metaphysical guarantees, the arts can be regarded as forms of philosophical practice. Alva Noë asserts in Strange Tools that art “is itself a mode of investigation, a style of research, into the crucial questions that interest us, e.g. our human nature.” It is obviously not the case that participation in the arts therefore results in epistemological, metaphysical, ethical, or theoretical arguments. Through what the early German Romantics saw as its “infinite interpretability,” art responds instead to the always partial nature of our takes on the world and creates new ways of participating in the world. Given that philosophical theories almost constitutively fail to achieve the kind of consensuses that form much of the basis of the modern sciences, and are therefore inherently provisional, exclusion of the arts from philosophy is essentially a form of dogmatism. As I try to show in Aesthetic Dimensions of Modern Philosophy, exploring these issues points to the need for a philosophical approach that sees the arts themselves as philosophical resources, and in which the aesthetic implications of the work of thinkers as diverse as Montaigne, Hume, Kant, Schelling and the early German Romantics, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Cassirer, Karl Polanyi, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Dewey, and Adorno, can reveal neglected or repressed dimensions of a world in which so much is now in question.